Ottawa’s Winning LRT bid Revealed

When the city announces Wednesday morning that a consortium led by a Spanish construction conglomerate delivered the best bid to build the first phase of the city’s light-rail system, it’ll be back where it was in April 2006. That’s when it declared the winner of the competition to build a rail plan it ended up cancelling just eight months later.

This time, it’s supposed to be different. The plan sure is. It’s more expensive, at $2.1 billion versus $725 million. It’s shorter, at 12.5 kilometres rather than 28, and it mainly goes east-west (from Tunney’s Pasture to Blair Road) rather than north-south (from Barrhaven to the University of Ottawa). It’s also more ambitious in a way, including a tunnel under downtown Ottawa that planners expect the city would need before long, rather than running trains along Slater and Albert streets.

This time, the terms of the city’s contract with the winner are expected to be made public, secrecy about the last one having been a major factor in its failure.

This time, as the Citizen’s Joanne Chianello reported Tuesday, the winning bid is led by a builder, ACS Infrastructure, rather than a train-maker. And it includes a big, if tarnished, Canadian component, with Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin and assorted subsidiaries playing roles as financiers (the winning consortium is to pay a big chunk of the up-front costs and be repaid over many years), engineers, operators and maintenance overseers.

SNC-Lavalin has overseen new rail lines in Vancouver that transit authorities there are very happy with, but it’s also been implicated in a kickback scheme in Libya – Swiss authorities are investigating payments made in connection with a prison-construction contract there – and a bridge-building scheme in Bangladesh so dirty that the World Bank withdrew financing. Nothing’s been proven but former top executives face charges.


Neither SNC-Lavalin nor anyone at the city has been prepared to talk about any of it until the formal announcement is made on Wednesday.

Besides that, the announcement should settle some big questions that remain about the project, such as who will supply the trains the system will use. Only one of the three finalist bidders included a train-maker – a losing proposal led by France’s Vinci Concessions had Bombardier as a partner – and that left major players in the industry like Siemens and Alstom as free agents, able to be added later or even treated just as vendors rather than partners with a full stake in the plan.

The announcement should include details of the designs for the system’s 13 stations. The city has shown off drawings and graphics before, but they’re more conceptual than definitive: since the winning bidder will have to actually build them, it gets a big say in what they’ll look like and how they’ll fit into the surrounding neighbourhoods.

The ACS-led consortium includes Ottawa firm BBB Architects, best known here for designing the new downtown convention centre, and construction firm EllisDon, whose highest-profile current work is at Lansdowne Park.

We’ll find out whether the price means any compromises on the vision Ottawans have seen so far. Mayor Jim Watson has been adamant that the city’s top price is $2.1 billion, that neither he nor city officialdom had any interest in seeing a bid for a dollar more than that. It means that if the actual builders believe the city’s plans are optimistic, they’ll have to chisel at the scope and grandeur of the project rather than suggesting the city pay more. In fact, it’s expected that ACS’s bid has a price tag slightly below $2.1 billion, which may have given it the edge in a Watson administration that can’t resist high-profile penny-pinching.

We’re also expecting to learn details of the winning bid’s construction plan. Not every part of the 12.5-kilometre line is to be built at once, and different roads and Transitway sections will be closed and different grounds used as staging areas at different times, with traffic and bus services routed around them.

Bidders were asked to devise plans that would produce the least disruption – particularly as the five-year project nears its end in 2017, when Ottawa aims to be a major tourist destination on Canada’s 150th anniversary – and on Wednesday we should find out how well they succeeded.

The formal announcement was due at 9: 30 Wednesday morning in City Hall’s council chamber. As a measure of its importance, it was to include Premier Dalton McGuinty and federal MP Royal Galipeau, each of whose governments is putting up $600 million of the cost.

Councillors are to debate it twice – first on Dec. 12 and again on the day they take a final vote on signing the contract on Dec. 19.

Source: Ottawa Citizen

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